Facing a fine of $1 million a day for failing to produce pipeline safety records state regulators had wanted, PG&E revealed for the first time Monday that it will take nearly the rest of the year to provide them.
Because of concerns about the safety of the utility's natural gas pipes following the Sept. 9 San Bruno gas-line explosion, the California Public Utilities Commission had asked for the records Jan. 3. But when PG&E submitted a report last Tuesday, the commission's executive director, Paul Clanon, accused the company of "willful noncompliance" for failing to provide many of the papers it had sought and threatened to impose the unprecedented fines.
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica wouldn't comment specifically on why the company hadn't revealed earlier how long it would take to gather the records or say whether its disclosure in a regulatory filing Monday was intended to persuade the commission not to issue fines. He noted only that the company would appear at a March 28 hearing to discuss the proposed penalty.
But Molica added that Clanon's response to the company's report made PG&E realize that it had "failed to communicate both our commitment to safety and, more importantly, the full extent of the work we have done and are continuing to do to ensure the public and ourselves that our pipelines are operating at safe pressures."
Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the agency was reviewing PG&E's filing and did not have an immediate comment. However, state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he was incredulous the utility was now saying it wouldn't be able to produce all the records until nearly the end of the year.
"They don't take it seriously," Hill said of PG&E. "It seems like they have a laissez-faire attitude that is unacceptable." Noting that the PUC on Thursday will vote on whether to order PG&E to show cause why it shouldn't be fined, Hill said he expected the agency to seek the fines, adding, "I think they will take an aggressive approach to this willful lack of appropriate response."
Richard Kuprewicz, a Washington state pipeline safety expert, also said PG&E's claim that it will need many more months to find the records "doesn't make sense," adding that "I don't think it is that complicated" for a pipeline company to provide the documents the commission wants.
The state agency sought the records after federal investigators looking into the San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, discovered that the pipe ruptured at a pressure level PG&E had assumed was safe. In addition, the company's erroneous records may have misled it into thinking the pipe was stronger than it was.
The commission asked PG&E for documents describing the extent to which its pipes had undergone water-pressure testing, a common method used to determine the strength of gas lines before they are put into service. But many of PG&E's older pipes were installed before such water tests were required. As an alternative, the commission asked for records describing how the pipes were built, inspected and maintained -- information the commission said could be used to calculate safe pressure levels for those pipes.
However, PG&E's March 15 report failed to include much of that information. Of its 1,805 miles of urban pipes that were subject to the records request, PG&E said it couldn't find pressure-test records for about a third. But instead of providing the alternative documents the commission wanted for those pipes, PG&E said it was still searching for the records or merely provided data that suggested the pipes' pressure levels were safe because they had operated at that level for years.
Noting in its Monday filing that at times it has had "over 1,500 employees" searching for the records, PG&E said it has many of the documents but added that it may not find all the commission sought for its oldest pipes. However, it added, its intention is "to leave no stone unturned" in attempting to locate what documents it has.
Contact Steve Johnson at 408-920-5043.